Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Enterprise - 10

We checked in to the sad little hotel across from the office, a distressed outpost from another time, from when people did not come to town to tinker with machines but passed through to hike the Russian Ridge, maybe. Or God knows what. To escape on a doomed tryst with the secretary. To light out for the desert with a body in the trunk. It was inappropriate, it would seem, to the bright-shiny character of our endeavors, to say nothing of our cozy sense of privilege. So we chose to laugh about it: the nickname for the Pacific Inn was The Prison. If you were going to spend a few nights out west, it was said you were going to prison. One of the rooms – you'd have to be awfully unlucky to get it – was equipped with a Murphy bed.

Dinner was a selection of plastic-wrapped burritos, stacked beside the microwave. The yellow one, the red. The jumbo for the bigger appetites. Atop the microwave sat a Mr. Coffee machine with a perpetual pot, darkening by the hour. The Styrofoam cups were stacked up beside the sugar and the Sweet 'n' Low, the half-and-half, the Coffee-Mate. You were free to help yourself anytime of the day or night.

The following day was Tuesday, November seventh, the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. I'd voted days before in Manhattan, dutifully filling out my absentee ballot on Varick. Still, of all possible days, it seemed peculiar that on this one we should find ourselves across the country, about to scrutinize a series of strangers as they interacted with the fruit of our labors.

The Sunnyvale branch was predominantly hardcore technical: guys who didn't see much light of day, who were involved with the Product at the seabed level: where it was darkest, coldest, forbiddingly dense. The New York office was full of salespeople, business developers, designers and the like, people accustomed to looking each other square in the eye and smiling.

Of course it wasn't that simple. There was a bit of the West Coast in the East. There was a bit of the East Coast in the West. There were aspects of the people themselves that you couldn't readily see.

The office itself was located at an intersection, on the ground floor of a dismal commercial building that also housed a roster of utterly prosaic small-town concerns: an accountant, a lawyer, a distributor of medical supplies. Behind the glass door lay a jumble of desks, computers, computer parts and idiosyncratic personal effects. Judy appeared from her office in the back and introduced us to whoever happened to be around: the joyless and matronly office manager, Nancy; an enormously obese programmer, Nick; the genial Frenchman Jacques and his introverted echo Julien, and finally, the famous Bill, officially the CTO but really just the famous Bill.

Judy took us to the conference room and introduced us to Lisa, from Interim Consulting Services. Lisa was attractive, officious, a little bit distracted. She had a file folder open before her containing several documents and pages of handwritten notes. A keyboard and monitor were set up at the empty head of the table.

"Lisa will be facilitating the usability study," Judy declared.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"I'll be asking the questions," said Lisa.

"What are we going to do?"

"I want you guys to observe," said Judy. "Note-take. I'll be asking for your thoughts later. Thoughts and impressions. They'll be invaluable as we take on board the feedback, reassess and reconfigure."

"So we sit. And watch?" asked David.



"Over here, if you like," said Lisa. "Or over there."

"Right where you're sitting now is OK," said Judy. "Is that OK, Lisa?"

"That's fine. That's OK."

For the entire morning and the better part of the afternoon, men and women, mostly young, perhaps recently unemployed, paraded in and took their turns in the seat of honor. They examined the screen with alacrity, eager to please, or at least to satisfy.

A rather large tray of catered snacks was on offer on the credenza: brownies, petit fours, cookies, strawberries, sliced melon. It remained largely untouched.

"What might you type, do you think, at this point?" was the first question Lisa would ask, or a variation thereof.

"I don't know," some replied, frankly flummoxed.

Others might meekly, tentatively key in an overture: "Hello." "Hi." "What is this?"

"Were you at all inclined to type 'home'?"

"Oh!" they'd reply, like chastened pupils. Or: "No." "I don't know."

"Type 'home.'"

They did as they were told and the interaction continued, sometimes veering into vexing dead ends, sometimes concluding more or less happily, it would appear.

"There!" Lisa would exclaim.

A bashful smile from the user.

"Do you think this is an experience you might be interested in having again?" she asked. Or: "Would you tell other people about this if it were available? Family? Friends?"

"Oh yes," was the inevitable reply. "Yeah. Definitely." And if any cookies were eaten it was on the way out.

It was only midafternoon, and we had arrived at the end of Day 1. Judy led us in an impromptu debrief after Lisa had packed up her notes and folders and left.

"I wasn't too happy with the quality of the usability testers today, guys."

We murmured vague noises of assent.

"I didn't say anything to Lisa but I will. Do you realize how much we're paying for this?"

We smiled and nodded, allowing the question to be rhetorical. Just then Bill walked over with some urgency.

"Training time, guys! Take your swords."

He handed each of us a practice Japanese samurai sabre, a sinister-looking, gently curving wooden object that seemed only marginally less lethal than its steel analog.

"Everybody out in the parking lot!" yelled Bill as he strode through the main room clutching his sword. "Practice time!"

The programmers stood up creakily, stretched, and took up arms as well. Soon we were all out back, between the dumpster and the cars, standing in traditional dojo formation before a bald sensei clad in a flowing, black robe.

"Transfer your swords!" he barked.

The others dutifully moved their swords from left hand to right and held them stiffly at the opposite hip, as though they rested in a sheath. I stood in the back, fumblingly imitating them.

"Pair up!"

Everyone found a partner and stood ten paces or so apart. Mine was Nick, the tremendously obese programmer. His face bore an expression of solemn concentration and a faint sheen of sweat.

"You'll get the hang of it," he said. "Just watch what I do."

"Does everyone remember the kata from last week?" demanded the sensei. "New people: pay attention!"

He grabbed Bill from the front row and demonstrated a series of swift, cutting motions, each time bringing the tip of his sword hard and fast to within a few inches of Bill's neck.

"Yoko giri! Side cut!" he exclaimed. This time he swung his sword laterally and halted it beside Bill's pudgy abdomen. "The objective is to slice your opponent in half like a ripe fruit. Cut briskly and cleanly, without mercy! You must be completely dedicated to your strike. Hesitate for a moment and your opponent–" the sensei grabbed Bill's wrist and forced it upwards, the sword hanging high overhead in a chopping position – "will come down on the top of your skull with one hundred percent commitment and cut you to the core."

He broke away from Bill and turned toward the class, his every movement self-consciously fluid, ritualized. His posture was immaculate.

"Your turn!" he shouted at us.

Nick and I came at each other haltingly, deliberately, and positioned our weapons in the prescribed manner. I brought mine down over his skull; he parried as instructed. I had the feeling of participating in a staid, courtly dance.

Suddenly the sensei was behind me. He pulled back my shoulders and oriented me directly ahead.

"Face your opponent! Face your opponent!"

"Right, right, right," I said.

"He wants to cut you to ribbons!"

"I know."

"The kesa giri is like casting a fishing line. Try it! Try it!"

I pulled the sword over my head and brought it down in what I imagined to be a clean and graceful manner.

"No! No! No! No! No!" shouted the instructor.

Again he grabbed my shoulders, then my hips, my elbows, my hand, my wrists, and again my shoulders, shaping me and shaping me again, as though I were made of uncompliant putty.

"Don't force the blade."


"Don't force the blade!"

"Got it."

"Let it fall. Let the blade do the work."

"I see."

"It's very sharp! Trust the sharpness. Trust the blade!"


"Move quickly, decisively. Bring the blade down through Nick's skull."

He grabbed my wrists and moved them for me, bringing the sword down with them.

"Collapse your wrist before the point of impact. Move your body through. Move your body through!"

I leaned far forward, holding the sword loosely with the tip in the vicinity of Nick's forehead. I was off balance and out of breath. I hoped desperately I would not fall over.

"Better. Better!"

"Thanks," I said, returning to the ready position.

"Chiburi!" the master howled.


"Chiburi! The blade!"


"You've just cut clean through the body of another man."


"Shake the blood off that blade before you sheath it!"

He took my wrists again and shook them up and down. The sword bobbed in the air a few times and we all imagined fat, crimson drops falling from it onto the tarmac.

"Good!" he declared, satisfied, and continued on his rounds.

Beyond the parking lot fence the Caltrain roared by, whistle blaring, on the way to San Francisco.